Sri Lanka’s pluralist ethnic fabric under threat as anti-Muslim drive gains pace
An intimidating slogan ‘Sinha le,’ literally lion’s blood in Sinhala, the language of the majority of Sri Lankans, has triggered fear among the island’s Muslims.
The slogan was first seen spray-painted on the gates of Muslim homes in Nugegoda, a suburb of the capital, Colombo. Since then it has appeared as wall graffiti in other parts of the city as well as on stickers and posters on private and public vehicles. The ‘Sinha le’ campaign is gathering momentum in social media too.
The identity of those behind the ‘Sinha le’ campaign is yet to be established.
Some believe that parliamentarian Udaya Gammanpila and the Sinhale National Movement are behind the hate campaign. Gammanpila, a former member of the ultra-nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya, switched parties to support former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential election.
Others suspected of orchestrating the campaign include the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or Army of Buddhist Power, which was behind the anti-Muslim violence during Rajapaksa rule and is known to have been patronized by former defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president’s brother as well as two Buddhist monks from Kurunegala who are close to the Rajapaksa family.
Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Buddhist majority see themselves as the ‘lion race.’ According to myth, the Sinhalese are descendants of Prince Vijaya, who was born of a union between a lion and a human princess. They believe they are the original inhabitants of the island and hence its custodians of the land and the Buddhist faith.
Those who are asinhala (un-Sinhala) and abaudha (un-Buddhist) are looked upon as foreigners. Violence against them surged during colonial rule. Christians were targeted for their privileged position in colonial society and their ‘wayward lifestyle.’ As for Muslims, their economic prosperity – they dominated trade and business – made them targets of Sinhalese revivalism in the early 20th century.
According to Sinhala-Buddhist revivalist Anagarika Dharmapala, Muslims prospered at the expense of the “sons of the soil,” the Sinhalese.
In post-independence Sri Lanka, the Sinhalization of the state resulted in the political and economic marginalization of Tamils. It culminated in a insurgency for an independent Tamil state. With the defeat of that insurgency and the end of the civil war in 2009, Sinhalese-Buddhist extremists trained their guns on the Muslims.
Muslims are now at the receiving end of not only ultra-nationalist Sinhalese ire but of politicians seeking to access or consolidate power through polarization of Sri Lankan society. Anti-Muslim violence has surged in Sri Lanka since 2011. Scores of Muslim shops, businesses and places of worship were vandalized by mobs led by Buddhist monks. In 2013, the BBS ran a violent campaign calling for the boycott of halal-certified meat.
Political commentator Tisaranee Gunasekara points out that the “Rajapaksas used minority-phobia as a political tool to distract the attention of Sinhala-Buddhists from growing economic ills.” Organizations like the BBS, she says, “were used by the then ruling family to addle Sinhala-Buddhist minds with fear and hate and to threaten the minorities into subservience.”
The ‘Sinha le’ campaign, she describes, as another Rajapaksa “initiative”, a “freak show with a similar purpose – incite minority phobia among Sinhala-Buddhists and use that as a pathway for the Rajapaksas to regain lost power.”
The timing of the ‘Sinha le’ campaign suggests that it is aimed at the constitution writing process that was recently initiated by the Maithripala Sirisena government.
Sanjana Hattotuwa, founding editor of Groundviews warns that the ‘Sinha le’ campaign is “the first salvo in what will be many more movements, on similar lines, that attempt to deny, destroy and decry the essential diversity” of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s pluralist ethnic fabric is under threat again.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India, who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org